Jon Pelter remembers reading the news in disbelief.
“I was at home on Sunday morning, and I started reading,” said the young Penn State alumnus. “It really came as a shock. I didn’t know whether to believe it or not.”
Soon the reality would sink in: Jerry Sandusky, legendary former Penn State defensive coordinator, mastermind of Linebacker U, was accused of sexually molesting 10 young boys, sometimes on the university’s campus.
Shock and disbelief turned quickly into frustration and anger. Anger at Sandusky for selfishly, callously damaging the lives of so many children. Frustration at those who worked closely with him for not knowing more, not doing more to stop it.
For many closest to Penn State, those feeling grew in the following months at the university’s handling of the scandal both before and after Sandusky was charged.
And now, even with Sandusky convicted and behind bars, likely for the rest of his life, and with football coach Bill O’Brien winning against long odds with a group of players who wouldn’t abandon their university, those feelings remain.
And it all began about a year ago. Though reports that a grand jury was investigating Sandusky had been public for months, the extent of charges, and the allegations of a cover-up by top university officials, was, as Pelter puts it, a shock.
“When I was first talking to my friends, they didn’t even think the university would be dragged into it,” said Pelter, who graduated in May 2011 with a degree in political science.
But Pelter, who was living in State College and working for the university, knew at once how serious the case was for Penn State.
Within days, the board of trustees moved to part ways with legendary head coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier.
“I don’t think people knew how to react,” Pelter said. “Some alumni were calling for (Paterno) to go. Looking from the outside, a lot of folks thought that he had overstayed his welcome.”
Others within the Penn State community felt the university did wrong by Paterno, a feeling that intensified when he succumbed to lung cancer two months later.
By then, groups of angry alumni had begun gathering, on messages boards and in person. One group, Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, sought change through the board of trustees election.
“By firing (Paterno), they basically told the public there was a cover-up, that these men were guilty,” said Barbara Doran, a PS4RS-endorsed board candidate who came in fourth in the election. “I don’t believe that. Joe did what he should have.”
Questions over Penn State’s handling of the scandal continued with its acceptance of a university-commissioned investigation that some viewed as flawed, and its decision to go along with historic sanctions imposed by the NCAA.
“The original firing — that spread alumni unhappiness, then it was superseded by these other things,” Doran said. “Even after the board had time to regroup, they still made poor decisions.”
Doran, a 1975 graduate and financial adviser in New York, hears from her fair share of alumni. Many seek her out because she ran for a seat on the board.
“Those alumni are upset,” she said. “I think there is a tremendous sense of injustice.”
That can still be seen manifesting in and around State College. In September, messages directed at university leaders went up on digital billboards.
“Rodney Erickson: Appeal, surrender and apologize is not a winning strategy,” read one message directed to the president of the university.
Maribeth Schmidt, spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, said messages are from the same anonymous donor who was behind a billboard supportive of Paterno that was put up near the intersection of East Beaver Avenue and South Pugh Street in September.
Rallies have also sprung up, apparently organized on messages boards where frustrated and upset alumni have been weighing in about the university should be doing.
Organizer David Mullaly, a retired schoolteacher and 1969 Penn State graduate, found speakers for his cause in former football standout Franco Harris and trustee Anthony Lubrano.
“The only reason I care about Penn State is because of what it represented,” Mullaly has said. “We have a decent and honorable university and athletics program that does things the right way.”
The rallies, like the billboards, are expected to continue popping up. The last rally was held in the shadows of Beaver Stadium hours before the Nittany Lions faced the Ohio State Buckeyes late last month.
It drew only about 100 people, a mild disappointment for Mullaly. But he maintains a large group of alumni feel like he does, and vowed to hold another rally, possibility as soon as this month.
Doran, for one, knows that healing will continue with time. But she also believes change must still occur before some are ready to move on.
“If (trustees) want alumni to move on, they themselves, certain people, have to step down,” she said. “This happened on their watch. Particularly the ones named in the Freeh report, the ones who had advanced notice, those people are the ones who should resign.”
Pelter said he is friends with young alumni who refuse to donate to the university because “they are still emotional and upset.”
“They want to start again, but the university has to earn their trust,” he said.
For Pelter, that process already has begun.
“I think the university has done a wonderful job in attempting to be more open, not only to students, and facility and staff, but to the outside,” he said.
While what happens with donations, student enrollment and football game attendance remains to be seen, Doran is confident in her alma mater.
“Penn State has amazing strength,” she said. “Ultimately, we’ll be fine. The alumni won’t give up.”
Doran finds herself doing the small things to show her support.
“I never wore Penn State,” she said. “I wear it all the time now.”